The Power of Singing
Singing has a remarkable and life changing power. It increases creative potential, cognitive development and function, self-esteem, social interaction, emotional wellbeing and aspirations – all vital qualities to thrive in the 21st century. Voices Foundation is committed to ensuring that every child is able to find their voice through the power of singing, more important now than ever as we look ahead to the return to school in September. We’re determined to facilitate conversations about how important singing is to wellbeing, key to skill development and vital to keep central to the school timetable during this uncertain time.
On Monday 13th July, we hosted an online panel discussion on the topic of singing for wellbeing and being well while singing. Our aim was to make the case for singing and music making as a priority and to provide some guidance, ideas and inspiration for how it can be done safely.
We were lucky enough to have a fantastic panel made up of John Cameron OBE (Independent Safeguarding Consultant and former Head of ChildLine), Deborah Annetts (Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians), Professor Martin Ashley (Independent consultant and researcher on choral education for boys) and Clair Mills (Headteacher at Eastfield Academy Northampton, David Ross Education Trust). The discussion, chaired by our Interim Chief Executive Jennifer Coleman-Peers, focused on the huge benefits of singing to our wellbeing and how singing can specifically help the wellbeing of children returning to school after lockdown.
All our panellists touched upon the tangible positive effects that singing has upon our wellbeing. Singing provides us with incredible benefits both physically and mentally, whether that be via the endorphins we release when singing, the strengthening of our lungs and posture or how performing music develops cognitive skills which help our brain to age well. Singing also has huge social benefits with the power to teach us about each other, reconnect and bring us closer as humans as music forms an integral part of the heritage, history and religious practice of almost all cultures, countries and peoples.
The positive effects of singing on school children is well established. A recent report by the World Health Organisation (Dr Fancourt, 2019) revealed that engaging in artistic activities reduces social inequality, encourages healthy behaviour and positive mental health. The study shows that arts programmes have “specifically helped more vulnerable children to manage anxiety and aggression as well as increased school attendance and self-esteem.”
Our panellist Clair Mills remarked on how important singing was at her school for developing community spirit, providing an inclusive activity for all abilities and building the self-esteem of both children and staff.
In turn, John Cameron reminded us that singing is a form of communication and is invaluable in helping vulnerable children, as it gives them the tools and confidence to speak out. This will be especially important when many children will be returning from isolated conditions after lockdown:
“Any activity that can enhance self-esteem, confidence and sociability enables children to be better protected, it enables them to speak out when they are victims.”
– John Cameron OBE
As the UK and the wider world has battled with the multiple challenges that Covid19 has wrought on our way of life, we need outlets for our grief and our confusion more than ever. The proliferation of virtual choirs, the popularity of concerts streamed online from the living rooms of globally successful artists and the unexpected joy found in the Italian musicians singing to their neighbours from their balconies during lockdown reinforces a desire to return to singing during hard times.
The transition back to school may be challenging for both children and teachers but singing has the power to help. We know it releases stress and has mental and physical benefits that increase productivity. Students in schools are still going to be learning with a degree of physical distance for the foreseeable, but research by The Royal Society discovered that students felt significantly closer to each other after singing together.
This vital need for social reconnection should not be ignored when it comes to wellbeing in an education environment. It would be easy to presume that literacy and numeracy subjects should be given priority in terms of learning when children return to school, to help them catch up on “core subjects” after being at home for months. However, it will be the arts that will enable children to thrive when they return, aiding their mental, physical and social wellbeing to provide focus in every subject and happily ease them back into school life. Science, reports and our own experiences at Voices Foundation prove it. If schools want their students to excel upon their return, singing is essential.
Panellist Deborah Annetts remarked upon the mixed messages that the Department for Education is sending out on what it believes to be non-core subjects and on what children need to catch up on most:
“If you are asking your children to study Maths, English and Science endlessly, they are going to feel alienated from that kind of educational experience. Under the National Curriculum all children should have access to a broad and balanced curriculum, which means music as well. There is a concern that the pandemic will be used as an excuse to marginalise non-core subjects. We have to be very clear in our messaging back to government, that music is a core subject because it is proven to have both intrinsic and extrinsic value”
– Deborah Annets
All our panellists remarked upon the importance of music education in the school timetable. Clair spoke about how they incorporate a “little and often” approach to having singing feature throughout the school day in between lessons at her school. Both Martin Ashley and John spoke about singing providing a rejuvenating break and access to a relaxing subject, which would enable children to increase their productivity in numeracy and literacy subjects, as well as supporting the development of their musicianship skills.
In terms of safety measures going forward, the evidence around singing based activities remains unclear, with significant gaps in existing research on the disease. Martin said that we cannot eliminate risk altogether because of the threat of airborne infection, but that we still don’t know enough.
“There are many risk mitigations factors such as minimising the amount of people singing in a group, doing it in the largest possible space, opening the windows, but the big elephant in the room is that children are the lowest risk group by a very significant factor. We have to say that if we are working with children, we are working in a lower risk situation.”
– Professor Martin Ashley
Clair said that whilst the expectation is that guidance will continue to evolve as the science evolves Headteachers must plan according to the current guidance issued, but within that should ensure that music and singing is included in timetables. She suggested choosing instruments that can be cleaned or exploring more socially distanced warmups techniques to facilitate this. She also remarked upon how well her own students have adapted to safety measures at school:
“Children have adapted very quickly to hand washing, to not mixing with certain groups, to having different adults teach them. The majority of children have handled the changes amazingly.”
– Clair Mills
It is understandable that there will be anxiety about the return to school in the Autumn, but it is clear that schools such as Clair’s are already adapting incredibly well and are looking to the future to find ways to make sure singing is a priority in schools. Singing has the power to provide positive change to any child that has access to it, even in the most uncertain of times, so this work really is invaluable.
A huge thank you to our panellists and everyone who joined Monday’s discussion. If you’re a school thinking about how to get singing on your agenda in the Autumn, Voices Foundation is here for you and we want to give you the best support that we can. Please get in touch if you’d like to find out more about how a Voices Foundation programme could enable you to put singing on the agenda for 2020/21. As the discussion came to a close, here’s how Jennifer Coleman-Peers summed things up:
“Singing is essential, not only because of its intrinsic value, but also because of its proven impact upon wellbeing, which is important now more than ever … At Voices Foundation, we feel passionately about the power of singing and making it accessible for every child, but we recognise the huge challenges that we are all facing at the moment, whether that be uncertainty, lack of scientific information, or conflicting, evolving guidance. Amongst all of this, headteachers are trying to navigate their way through to find a way to make sure that singing remains on the agenda and that children have access to it. It’s a difficult course to chart, but a really important one.”
– Jennifer Coleman-Peers,
Interim Chief Executive, Voices Foundation